Agreement proves elusive as talks begin on North Korea nuclear crisis

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The United States and North Korea made their first face-to-face contact in four months yesterday when crucial six-way talks on the crisis surrounding Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme opened in Beijing. But warm handshakes and broad smiles for the cameras proved short-lived.

There was little sign that the start of the three-day talks - which have brought together the US, Russia, the two Koreas, Japan and China - had led the two main adversaries to give ground and resolve a crisis that has rattled nerves through east Asia and beyond.

The envoys gathered in the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing. But yesterday, history-making proved elusive. Before the talks began, Wang Yi, a Chinese diplomat, said it was "impossible to solve all problems through one or two discussions". No one disagreed.

Mr Wang played a large part in luring North Korea into the multilateral talks - a reflection of China's unease with the conduct of its neighbour, once a close ally for whom it sacrificed a million men in the Korean War.

The crisis began last October when James Kelly, the US assistant secretary of state, presented the North Koreans with evidence that they were operating an illegal nuclear enrichment programme.

That violated a 1994 agreement under which Pyongyang would bring to an end its nuclear programme, which enabled it to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs. In return, the Americans and their allies provided free fuel oil and promised to build two "light-water" nuclear reactors for generating electricity.

In the ensuing hiatus, North Korea reactivated an atomic plant at Yongbyon, threw out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and became the first nation to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

It went on to inform Mr Kelly that it already had several bombs - playing on American fears that these could fall into the hands of "terrorists". It also said it had reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods. The Americans have said they want a diplomatic solution. They demand the "complete, irreversible, and verifiable" end to the atomic programme, before making any concessions. Pyongyang wants Washington to provide a formal guarantee of its survival, and economic aid.

The volatile atmosphere has not been calmed by the news that enriched uranium traces have been discovered at an Iranian research plant. That has strengthened suspicions in Washington and the UN that, despite its disclaimers, Tehran is closer than ever to producing a nuclear weapon.

The revelation is the most startling of several this week, all suggesting Iran is in breach of its obligations to the UN's nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

According to a new report issued by the IAEA, the clerically ruled Islamic republic had repeatedly failed to keep the IAEA abreast of its nuclear activities, as stipulated by the UN safeguard agreements to which Iran subscribes. A formal verdict of non-compliance from the Security Council could pave the way for UN sanctions against Tehran.

The Iranian government insists it has nothing to hide, saying its programme is entirely peaceful. That is treated with deep scepticism by Western governments who argue that, with its massive reserves of oil and natural gas, Iran has no need for nuclear energy.

The traces of highly enriched uranium, which were found by IAEA inspectors at the Natanz plant 200 miles south of Tehran, have hardened Western diplomats' belief that Iran's activities represent a "pattern of great concern".